The crisis facing the Sri Lankan government and the rising mood of militancy of the working class

In 1994, together with the other "Left" parties, including the "Communist Party", the leadership of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, the traditional workers' party which was originally a Trotskyist party) entered the popular alliance (PA) government headed by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) and have been carrying out an anti-working class policy of privatisation and cuts in line with the dictates of the IMF. This has led to the rapid rise of a left opposition inside the LSSP, associated with the well-known mass leader, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the member of parliament for the Ratnapura district.

The reaction of the LSSP leadership has been to resort to widespread expulsions and suspensions of party activists. They have also refused to convene a Party congress which they are bound to do under the statutes. According to the Rules, a congress must be called every two years. In fact, the last congress was held in 1994. The leadership does not want to hold a congress for the simple reason that they would be in a minority. The left opposition has responded by organising themselves into the LSSP Majority.

The undemocratic actions of the LSSP leadership have brought the Party to the brink of a split, just at a time when the PA government has entered into a serious crisis and parliamentary elections have to be called. In a desperate attempt to save itself, the PA government tried to make use of the critical military situation brought about by the latest offensive launched by the Tamil Tigers in the North. The government introduced Emergency Laws in May of this year which drastically curtailed civil and trade union rights and introduced draconian press censorship.

At the same time, the PA government is pressing on with plans to continue its right-wing policies, such as privatisation of the People's Bank—the biggest bank in Sri Lanka. The timing of this is no accident. In December the so-called Paris Club meets to discuss aid for Sri Lanka. As usual, Chandrika is more concerned with placating her western creditors than with the problems of the workers and peasants. With the result that a mass mood of discontent has been building up, reflected in an increase of strikes and demonstrations.

The workers launched a campaign in May to get a wage increase of 3000 rupees which was cut across by the emergency regulations imposed by the government. This campaign was launched by a newly formed trade union federation under the leadership of comrade Quintus Liyanage. Most of the trade union leaders (such as the LSSP and CP leaders) are now actively participating in the PA government and they are not prepared to launch a campaign against the government. That was the reason, which led Quintus Liyanage to take the initiative to form a new trade union federation for this campaign. Now about 42 trade unions are grouped in this federation.

This campaign was temporarily undermined by the brutal Emergency Regulations introduced by the government. But during the last month the mood of the working class was becoming radical again. On the 28th July the federation took a decision to launch an island-wide protest campaign. The most significant development was when the railway workers decided to participate in this with a 24-hour token strike. In fact on 28th July this railway token strike took place together with the island-wide protest campaign of other sectors. Comrade Quintus Liyanage was the convenor of the federation which succeeded in uniting about 42 different trade unions that previously were loyal to rival political tendencies for decades. It was not easy get unions from such different backgrounds and loyalties to unite under one banner. Now the campaign is moving forward. They are planning to hold another token strike on 1st September. The railway workers, the government printing department and the health workers will all participate.

The government manoeuvres

The aggravation of the war situation in the northern part of the island and the rise of cost of living has undermined the popularity of the PA government. The latter has replied with repressive measures. The government banned two newspaper companies under the emergency regulations but the Supreme Court passed a judgement declaring the ban to be totally illegal and also ordering the government to pay compensation. As a result of this judgement the government had to relax certain regulations imposed in May of this year. Aware of the growing unpopularity of the government, the PA was clearly not in a mood for a general election. On the other hand, according to the constitution parliament had to be automatically dissolved by 24th of August. Therefore the government, in desperation, wanted to do something quickly. In the first week of August the government tabled two bills by-passing the normal parliamentary procedures arguing that the measures under consideration were extremely urgent.

One of these bills is to amend the present constitution. According to the present constitution, any amendment requires a two-thirds majority in parliament and then has to be approved in a referendum. Therefore it was clear that, even though the government parties could get a two-thirds majority in parliament, they could not implement the new constitution before the next parliamentary session, because they could not organise a referendum in such a short space of time (that is, before 24th August). Therefore they tabled a second bill to amend the Parliamentary Election Act under the present constitution, which includes proposals for a parliament of 298 MPs, of which only 168 would be directly elected, and no fewer than 130 would be nominated! This also required a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

In fact, changing the present Bonapartist constitution is a long-standing demand of the Sri Lankan masses. But this amendment was not intended to abolish the executive (presidential) system. It talked about an "executive premier". But that would only be from year 2005 onwards, which is after the completion of the present term of Chandrika. If it intended to abolish the presidency only after the year 2005, what was the hurry to present it to parliament at this moment? The real reason is that, under the constitution, the transitional powers are defined in such a way that without going for an election they could extend the period of this parliament for another six years. However, as usual it was presented to the parliament as a solution to the ethnic crisis, which is the easiest way of getting the support from the left and progressive elements and the minority representatives. In reality, no devolution powers are provided by this constitution. Indeed, certain devolution powers including the 13th amendment at the time of the Indo-Lanka accord were removed from the present bill.

On the other hand it was proposed to remove the words "Democratic" and "Socialist" from the name of Sri Lanka. (At present the official name of the country is "The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka"). This was not an accident. By the removal of those two words, they intend to move to the right and enshrine private ownership as a human right. The whole idea is to assure the western countries and imperialist finance agencies that Sri Lanka has distanced itself from democratic and socialist ideology and will protect the investments of the imperialist powers. Very little time was given to study this constitution. Only members of parliament got copies of the bill. The general public was kept in the dark about the proposed constitution. The reason for this secrecy is clear from the reactionary nature of the content. In order to ensure that the new constitution would be passed in parliament, all kinds of dirty tactics were used, including direct bribery of MPs. Comrade Vasudeva Nanayakkara played a central role in denouncing the reactionary nature of the proposed constitution and forcing the government to withdraw it.

The government brought this bill forward as a manoeuvre to avoid immediate elections. Since it was presented as a progressive step towards a solution of the ethnic problem, Sinhala chauvinists and Buddhist monks started an intensive campaign against the proposal. The anti-democratic and anti-socialist features of the constitution did not get the attention of the public.

In fact, there is not much difference between the present constitution and the proposed constitution. The UNP initially agreed to most parts of the proposed new constitution. There have already been a lot of discussions between the PA and the right-wing opposition UNP about amending the constitution as a step towards solving the ethnic problem. But sensing the growing chauvinist opposition and the manoeuvres that the PA was planning to carry out with the constitution, the UNP withdrew their support for the proposal at the last moment.

The President CBK herself came to the parliament to table the bill. She did that because she thought that she could buy several UNP parliamentarians and get a two-thirds majority in the parliament. There were rumours that the PA was prepared to pay 20 to 50 million rupees to anyone who voted for the bill. However, the UNP was equal to the task and just prior to the day the vote was scheduled to be taken in parliament, the UNP leadership sent about 25 of their MPs - potential defectors- to Singapore. So the PA had to postpone taking the vote on both bills. After a couple of days' deliberation, on 18th August parliament was dissolved, and now parliamentary elections are due by the 10th of October.

The LSSP Majority and the elections

During this episode, only the LSSP Majority analysed and pointed out the real anti-democratic and anti- socialist features of the proposed constitution and the hidden motives behind it. While the main parties were supporting it, saying that it was a step towards solving the ethnic problem, the chauvinist forces came onto the streets, allegedly to "protect the country and Buddhism". Only the LSSP Majority was capable of showing the real reactionary nature of the proposal. Based on that analysis, comrade Vasudeva Nanayakkara delivered a marvellous speech in parliament, which exposed all the hidden motives, and the reactionary content of the proposed legislation. This speech was greeted with overwhelming approval from all parts of the media. The position of the LSSP Majority received powerful confirmation by the fact that the TULF, the main Tamil party in parliament, plus five members of the CWC, the main up-country Tamil party, also opposed the proposed constitution.

Once the elections had been called, the LSSP Majority were obliged to take a decision. Yet again the LSSP leadership tamely decided to stand under the PA banner . For a long time the LSSP Majority has been fighting to get the LSSP to change course. The leadership continues to defy the mood and aspirations of the working class by blindly supporting Chandrika. This runs entirely contrary to the opinion of the Party rank and file. Even the LSSP Central Committee no longer supports the leadership. But the only response of the leadership has been expulsions which have decimated the Party's active base. The LSSP Majority has taken legal action to compel the leaders to convene a congress. But the fear of the members is that either they will still refuse to call a congress or they will call a fake congress in some hotel room behind the backs of the Party with the sole purpose of ratifying the present leadership and electing a Central Committee composed of obedient stooges. Under the circumstances the comrades decided that it was necessary to stand.

The parliamentary elections are now the main point on the agenda. The LSSP Majority is contesting the election under the banner of the LDA (The Left and Democratic Alliance). During the last couple of weeks, seeing that elections were on the agenda, the LSSP Majority tried to unite all the left forces to fight the election in a united front. Due to various reasons it was not possible to form a left united front but at the last minute a very important agreement was reached. The LDA and the NLF—the front formed by the NSSP and some other small parties—came to a no-contest agreement, that is, they agreed not to field candidates against each other. The LDA decided to stand in districts where they are strongest, including Ratnapura which comrade Vasu is contesting, Kegalle—an LSSP stronghold in the past—and Jaffna the war-torn district in the north, while Colombo and some other districts are being contested by the NLF. With this no-contest agreement we can definitely avoid splitting the left vote and thus secure the maximum representation.

In the meantime, a new strike has been called for the first of September and the mood for a fight on the question of a minimum wage is building up all the time. In short, Sri Lanka has entered into a new and turbulent period of the class struggle.